Pedicabs are finding a place in the Southland transportation mix

The capital of car culture is increasingly making room for bicycles.

A neon-green pathway runs down downtown’s Spring Street, begging drivers to pay attention to cyclists. Hundreds of miles of less-flashy lanes are spreading across the region. And in April, about 150,000 bikers swarmed Venice Boulevard for the largest-ever CicLAvia.

Now the next big thing in bikes is slowly riding in on three wheels.


Pedicabs will hit the streets of Santa Monica this summer, and city officials hope the service will offer people on bustling Main Street a way to get around without their cars. Santa Monica will join San Diego, San Francisco, Santa Barbara, Huntington Beach and Long Beach, where the human-powered taxis already roam the streets.

Los Angeles has long resisted pedicabs, but there are signs the resistance is waning. Los Angeles Department of Transportation spokesman Jonathan Hui said the agency is “studying the breadth of a pedicab regulatory system” in order to help establish a system of its own.

Transportation experts say Santa Monica’s approval of bicycle taxis points to a larger trend in the Southland — a logical next step and new frontier for a region long branded by its freeway system.

“There’s been a cultural shift toward non-motorized or green transportation in general,” said Michael Smart, a researcher at the Institute of Transportation Studies at UCLA. “In the past six to seven years there’s been a real sea change.”

The pedicabs, advocates say, provide a safe, energy-efficient mode of transportation for congested areas with the most traffic. Proponents also say the pedicabs provide a way to get drunk drivers out of their cars.

Cynthia Rose, a spokeswoman for the bike advocacy group Santa Monica Spoke, said pedicabs are yet another emerging piece of “our movement toward a more sustainable city with active, mobile transportation.”

“There isn’t one silver bullet,” she said. But pedicabs are “clean, healthy transportation.... This is what our city is about: getting people around without causing more impact or more congestion.”

Critics are few in number, but some fear that the oversized bikes won’t alleviate problems on clogged streets, but could make them worse.

“You’re dodging a lot of pedestrians after the bars let out and you have taxis double parked, and then you’re going to have pedicabs?” Santa Monica filmmaker Kenneth Kokin said as he left a local bar. “Main Street is going to be a hell.”

Private companies started providing passenger service in Westwood and Venice in the mid-1980s, but according to a transportation agency report, most pedicabs had gone out of service by the early 1990s.

By 2007, people started to discuss the return of the pedicab — this time with downtown in mind. But the recommended regulations that followed were draconian: All riders needed a helmet, and drivers had to wear “a shirt with sleeves, and a collar, pants or shorts … with a belt and black shoes.” The regulations were “determined to be too restrictive,” Hui said, so the city never adopted them.

Last year, City Councilman Eric Garcetti — now L.A.'s mayor-elect — reignited the pedicab idea by presenting a motion that urged the transportation agency to look into the feasibility of starting a pilot program in Hollywood. Garcetti spokesman Diego De La Garza said their office is still waiting to hear back. The councilman, De La Garza said, “is always looking for transportation opportunities and things that are innovative.”

The transportation department continues to study pedicab regulation, Hui said, but it will not issue pedicab permits in the city. And although Hui acknowledged that current regulations date back several decades, he said the agency does not have a “firm timeline” on when new rules might be implemented.

Leron Gubler, president and chief executive of Hollywood’s Chamber of Commerce, said pedicabs could help tourists who didn’t want to make the trek from Hollywood & Vine to Hollywood & Highland. And at night, locals could take jaunts between different theaters, clubs and restaurants.

“Sometimes, it’s a little too far for some people to walk,” Gubler said. “Or people might do it just for fun.”

Dan Kerrigan, the owner-operator of Trike Pilots Inc., which applied for a business license in Santa Monica, said pedicabs could also ease congestion in downtown L.A. Staples Center would offer plenty of patrons, he said.

Pedicabs are “coming up the coast,” he added, “so L.A., get ready.”

While California cities can’t ban pedicabs — they are essentially seen as bicycles under state law — they can withhold business licenses pending the development of regulations.

In Santa Monica, where business license applications started to trickle in last year, the new ordinance will require pedicab companies to get permits that ensure they meet the minimum threshold of equipment, signage and driving standards.

“I think there’s a general consensus that pedicabs add to the environment from the standpoint of they can be pleasant, open air,” said city staff member Salvador Valles. “There’s sort of a romanticized view of pedicabs. It’s an ambience.”

Still, transportation experts and even members of the cycling community warn that pedicabs come with a slew of safety concerns. Cautionary tales linger, operators say, of traffic jams, reckless drivers and pedicab passengers who have died in places like Seattle and San Diego.

“I wouldn’t want a carte blanche, a ‘Let’s just let them in and see what happens,’” said Ray Mundy, a transportation and logistics professor who studied pedicabs for the city of Austin, Tex. “There’s too much liability and danger to the public.”

On a recent weeknight, the raucous folk music raged on after midnight inside a Santa Monica tavern, but Allen Goolsby was ready to go home.

Goolsby, 26, walked the mile and a half to work at a local restaurant earlier in the day, and with no buses running, he complained that he would have to pay $10 for a cab ride back to his home on Abbot Kinney Boulevard.

“As a local, another option would be nice,” he said as he lighted a cigarette on Main Street.

He threw his arm out and hailed a silver Toyota Prius taxi.

“Ten dollars, man,” he said as he walked toward the cab. “I don’t have any other choice.”